The work of the D.C. Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, created to overhaul school boundaries and student-assignment policies for the D.C. Public Schools, has received praise across the city. Even critics of the reform proposals presented by the committee have paid tribute to the process through which alternatives were formulated. But none of the proposals presented to the public for debate addresses the elephant in the room: We have two independent entities making uncoordinated decisions about the future of our public school system. This makes rational planning impossible.
Abigail Smith, the city’s deputy mayor for education, has encouraged the public to reflect on two questions when they evaluate the proposals. What is our vision for public education in the city? What policies will help improve the quality of education at all our schools? The assumption behind these two questions — and it’s a deeply mistaken assumption — is that the D.C. Public Schools can pursue its vision of excellence irrespective of whether the independent charter sector expands, contracts or maintains its present size.
The menu of options presented to the public includes out-of-boundary “set-asides” for low-income students and a version of “controlled choice” that would replace neighborhood school assignments with a lottery system to place children in one of a cluster of nearby schools. The theoretical merits of these and other options are worth debating, but no reforms will work according to design if they are implemented without formal cooperation with the charter sector.
After a decade of haphazardly reforming our public school system, we have reached a crucial junction. In little more than a decade, enrollment in charter schools has increased from less than 5 percent of the school population to more than 40 percent. We now have the nation’s third-highest percentage of public school children attending charters.
The great debate between advocates of charter and neighborhood schools will continue. But this debate should not distract us from what is now the greatest obstacle to improving our public school system: the two-headed monster that rules over the administrative side of our public school system.
The D.C. Council in 2007 gave the mayor direct authority over DCPS. It also designated the D.C. Public Charter School Board the sole authority over charter schools. By law, that seven-member board can approve up to 20 new schools a year.
At the time, this approach was reasonable, though it lacked sufficient foresight. Now we have planning problems that only close coordination between these sectors can solve. We cannot continue to support a law that mocks the idea of rational planning.
Let me provide one concrete example. The most widely supported menu option put forth by the D.C. Advisory Committee appears to be the creation of new, high-quality middle schools throughout the city. That there is strong demand for good neighborhood middle schools and predictable feeder patterns is clear. In Ward 4, where my children attend a neighborhood elementary school, parents are pushing DCPS to reopen MacFarland Middle School (under a new name). A new and improved MacFarland would not only meet the demand for a good middle school but also supply a newly renovated Roosevelt High School with an influx of motivated students and parents.
But how can our next mayor invest in the renovation, redesign and staffing of a new neighborhood middle school without the collaboration of decision-makers in the charter sector? The charter board is considering eight new schools for the 2015-2016 school year, including two middle schools that might compete directly with a reopened McFarland. Can a city afford to invest in a new neighborhood middle school if charter schools open at the same time and compete for the same students?
Competition and experimentation can serve constructive purposes. The original logic behind charter schools was that they would be laboratories of learning, much in the same way our states are laboratories of democracy. Innovations that proved effective would disseminate.
But the evidence suggests that such collaboration has ceased. What we see today is a counterproductive kind of balkanization: parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, researchers and private funders are either pro-charter or pro-neighborhood schools. Competition, instead of being a spur to excellence, fuels an ideological debate that no amount of data-crunching and statistical analysis will resolve conclusively.
Strong convictions may win public debates. But humility is the beginning of intelligent discussion. If we want to manage the reform of our public schools intelligently — if we want to think strategically about the future of our entire public school system — we have to relax our attachment to complete charter autonomy.
The combined lottery introduced this year is a baby step in the right direction. But we are still in the political and administrative wilderness. In our present system, the viability of new public schools — charter or traditional — is impossible to predict.
The writer is a D.C. resident.